Perhaps more than any other woman, Marjorie Dannenfelser is responsible for the fall of Roe vs. Wade.
The president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a nonprofit group that works to end abortion in the United States by electing antiabortion politicians, Dannenfelser has dedicated her adult life to outlawing abortion. In 2016, she played a key role in getting President Trump to commit to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion.
The Los Angeles Times asked Dannenfelser, 56, about the fall of Roe, her antiabortion journey and her strategy for outlawing abortion nationwide. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
After decades working in antiabortion politics, you are watching Roe vs. Wade fall. In what sense is this a historic moment?
It’s the culmination of almost 50 years of work. There was no certainty that this moment would come at all. But every single time there’s a failure or a setback, this movement has grown. And that is a marker of an authentic human rights movement: It draws more in difficulty than it does in success sometimes.
You’ve written: “No other issue, however worthy, carries a moral weight equal to that of the unborn child in the womb.” How did you get from being a pro-choice Republican to believing that abortion is about human rights, not women’s rights?
I grew up in fairly polite society. You just didn’t think or talk about this issue. I think that polite society has kept the harsh reality of that human rights violation away from the public eye and from one individually. So I never thought about it. I knew that I would have [an abortion] if I needed one. I just considered it part of living.
But that ability to keep what an abortion is out of your thoughts, out of your mind … when I approach the reality of what the object of the abortion is, and then what happens in an abortion, I mean, it is really hard to ignore the reality of a procedure that tears a small human apart limb from limb. It’s that — imagining the too horrible to imagine — that finally set my thoughts in process.
In college at Duke, I started pre-med and ended up in philosophy. I had a lot of friends who were very pro-life. They showed a movie on campus, “The Silent Scream” narrated by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a prolific abortionist who changed his mind to being pro-life. He showed an abortion through a sonogram, and you could see what was happening. I remember I was like, “That is just insulting. I am not going to watch that.” But I had these conversations with people peppering me with difficult questions: “What happens in an abortion?” “What is the object?”
Like, if you’re getting your appendix out, that’s the object. If you’re getting your tonsils taken out, that’s the object. What is the object in an abortion?
Taking stock of the last few decades, how was Roe undone? What were the key turning points? How pivotal was 2016, when you got President Trump to commit to nominating justices who opposed abortion?
All of a sudden, in Jan. 22, 1973, there is a need for a huge movement, because every single pro-life law has been wiped off the books by the Supreme Court. So we required some sort of strategy quick, without any grass roots, just a handful of people. So that first wave was figuring out: “Oh, we need a movement and what do we do?”
In the second wave, the movement started to grow. It built pregnancy help centers trying to reach women to help them at that moment in their lives. There were all sorts of education campaigns. The organic movement grew and grew, but silently in communities and towns and churches all over the country.
Then, in 2012, came the third wave. We decided to very strategically put this at the center of politics: prove the case that this is not only the right thing to do, but the politically smart thing to do, by drawing a contrast between what the other side has achieved, absolute abortion on demand up into the end, paid for by everybody, versus what our candidates were advocating for: some compromise, like a 20-week limit. Such a limit has massive support in every demographic, except for the most hardcore left.
We started to ask presidential candidates to make a pledge of action. With the pledge, it became a primary debate among all the Republican primary candidates: Who’s the most pro-life? That’s exactly what you want. Then when it came to Trump: The commitment from him — because there was so much doubt about who he was and what he would do — was vital. It really came down to a letter from him to me in the pro-life movement, pledging what he would do concretely if he were the president of the United States. So many people didn’t take it seriously, because nobody thought he was gonna win. But he did.
You attribute part of your success to compromise — promoting 20-week limits — but surely your ultimate goal isn’t compromise? It’s to outlaw abortion across the United States? You’ve spoken privately with possible Republican presidential contenders, including Trump, about a federal ban.
Now the door is open, so of course we will walk through it. After nearly 50 years, this is an opportunity to allow the people to speak through their laws through their elected representatives. And so every legislature in the country, including Congress, is now entrusted with this really heavy moral weight to get it right. And so we will be as ambitious for life and for mothers in every single state as consensus will allow.
We will build broad support for the most protective laws for unborn children and assistance for their mothers in every single state. That’s about 30 states where it’s in play and 20 where there’s very little chance and it would require federal legislation. But it’s the same approach for the U.S. Congress, which is not Alabama. It’s very complicated and it requires a president and a Congress that can utter the word “compromise.”
What do you say to the many women who will now take to the streets to protest, upset that the government is making a decision for women that violates their bodily autonomy?